Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Awful Waste of "Senior Year"

Not, however, if you are at university.

The culture of the American high school is largely trickle-down from that of American universities' colleges, as seen in the ambiguity of the signifiers "freshman", "sophomore", "junior", and "senior", which in the United States can refer to either a year at university (the older usage) or in high school. The key linking event was the deliberations of the Committee of Ten in 1892, which was convened to establish coordinated curricula for American high schools, which were newly expanding from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, by which time the high school graduation rate had increased from under 10% to over 70% of the annual cohort. With university presidents such as Charles Elliot of Harvard in charge of this key committee, the only conception of the American high school was for college preparation; vocational training was never considered, since America usually had a labour shortage and young men (a woman's place was elsewhere) could pretty easily find work after finishing elementary school in the eighth grade, or joining the paid workforce even earlier.

But young people in their mid-teens are considerably less mature than those around 20, and while college students have been shown, in Making the Most of College and elsewhere, to be able to handle romantic relationships, sports, and work without their academic success being negatively affected, this is not true of younger teens, when these distractions, encouraged by the culture of the standard comprehensive high school, considerably detract from American students' academic performance, to the point where they have fallen significantly behind their foreign competitors by the end of high school.

Worst of all is the awful waste of senior year, when students, upon submitting their college applications, often drift from one mindless celebration (of what? future unemployment?) to the next, such as homecoming, the winter dance, senior ditch day, various dress-silly days, the prom, awards night, and graduation -- but what American young people are graduating to is increasingly unclear.

By contrast, I have been studying the culture of Terminale, the last year of secondary school in a French lycee. You won't find any of the above popular activities there; students must study for their baccalaureat, which, once passed, confers free admission to public universities in pursuit of three-year bachelor's degrees, with all expenses paid for by the state. The work is hard, with many practice tests, long hours, and regular studying; but the payoff is real, not some meaningless scroll, again imitating higher education, that prepares students for nothing but a letdown. And this serious use of the last year of secondary school is not particular to France; it is common throughout the developed world, where meaningful external examinations are prepared for at the end of secondary school, with significant consequences for the students, in comparison with America's current testing to grade the teachers. The malady "senioritis" is unheard of in any of these countries outside North America. Meanwhile, our seniors party away, as if they had something like a college diploma to celebrate; they don't, and even the latter is increasingly uncertain security in the face of global competition.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Switzerland Remains on Top of the Mountain

Last week, new data emerged from the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, which, together with a report from McKinsey on youth unemployment around the world, led me to reconsider my previous evaluations of education systems around the world. While the TIMSS and PIRLS data proved valuable, as representing an approach to the assessment of mathematics, science, and reading complementary to PISA and with fresher results, the McKinsey report ultimately did not; but I was led to renew some previous desk research I had done on different systems' abilities to connect students with special needs to employment, and was able to find more systematic data than I had previously, which also represents an improvement in my overall evaluations. I connected these results with some more recent desk research I had separately done on top universities around the world, thus including in my assessment the abilities of different systems to serve students on the other end of the scholastic abilities spectrum, and in the end came out with what I believe to be my best assessment of different education systems to date, the results of which I will now reveal.

I remain committed to my previous judgement that Switzerland, in all its diversity, has the best education system in the world. While creditable in all five categories (attainment, achievement, serving the underprivileged, serving the most promising, and connecting to a modern economy), it is especially Switzerland's ability to serve students at the extremes of the spectrum of scholastic abilities that helps to push it beyond all its competitors. Then, in a second tier, I would place (in alphabetical order, so as not to claim extreme precision to what is inevitably a judgement about what matters most in education and how to measure these features) the systems of Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Singapore. The latter two have risen in my estimation because of Singapore's world-leading results in TIMSS and PIRLS and because both countries, along with Switzerland, are among the few where the disabled have a better than 50% chance of being employed, in contrast to a European Union average of 40% and a U.S. average of 39.9%.

The country with the best record of employing the disabled, Iceland, is nonetheless the one that has taken the most notable plunge in my estimate, since I could not find a single Icelandic university ranked in the top 500 in the world in either the Shanghai or the QS rankings. A gifted young Icelander may have little choice but to go abroad for higher education, particularly of an advanced kind; and no top class education system can have such a grievous deficiency. New Zealand declines in my estimation for a similar deficiency, although the University of Auckland is one I would gladly have a relationship with for my school; and Finland drops a bit (it is now joined in a wider third tier by England, France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden, and the United States) because of some stagnation in its TIMSS and PIRLS scores, while its main competitors are improving, and because of its limited excellence in higher education compared with the peers of the University of Helsinki, a very strong institution, but Finland's only university ranked in the top 100 in the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Assessing 21st Century Competences

"In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

Thus Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined to the gathered leaders of the Inter-American Development Bank earlier this month. I have been writing a series of posts stimulated by this speech, and wish to discuss this paragraph.

Yesterday I defined at greater length a set of competences that agrees with the secretary's pithier enumeration. But America is transfixed by educational assessment at the present time, and a question arises: if these are the competences we want our students to acquire, how can we assess whether they are in fact developing them?

Clearly not with the 20th century tests that are currently in the headlines, necessary though those are. It's clear that some of these competences can be assessed at a fixed time in a public arena, but many can't, including all three the secretary speaks of above.

The one country that I know has made a first serious attempt down this road is France. In that country, students concluding middle school (at the end of what would be our ninth grade) take a national examination, the brevet, which confers a diploma, but does not affect the students' right to proceed further with their education. It is set at the age when, some generations ago, young French would typically conclude their education, and includes public assessments in language arts, mathematics, and social studies (history, geography, and civics). It is being modernized, with additional certifications of competence in a foreign language, computing, and art history, and is accompanied by "a common base of fundamental knowledge and skills" (le socle commun de connaissance et de competences) that all young French are to master. Interestingly, documented mastery of these fundamental competences, which are based on the earlier efforts I named two posts back, is now a requirement for students to gain this national diploma. This assessment requirement began in 2011, and presumably didn't go smoothly, since already it is being reformed and simplified; but this is a noble effort, one we should be following and preparing to contribute to; for "no student should have an education that is less than that provided by other states or other countries" (Stewart, A World-Class Education, 83). And I submit that age 15 is the right time for this assessment, since that, the end of common schooling, is when young French begin to diverge in their paths between general and vocational education, a feature also of the top education system, Switzerland's, which we would be wise to follow in this respect, as well.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Synthesizing 21st Century Competences Into a Profile

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, in Five Minds for the Future, defines (in the words of the book's jacket cover) "the cognitive abilities that will command a premium in the years ahead", and one of these is the synthesizing mind. I have such a proclivity, and have produced a synthesis of the various competences described in yesterday's post that we hope to help our future graduates to acquire, ones I wish our current high schools were producing but in general are not. Following that is a profile of what we want One World Learners to become, which synthesizes the work that Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel have done with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as well as that of Professor Gardner in his book quoted above and of Harvard's Tony Wagner in his The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators. Both of the following quotations are from the same internal document I mentioned yesterday.

"The competences of One World learners

"One World learners (OWLs) will prioritize learning to know and learning to do so as to facilitate the innovative, interactive use of tools such as information technology via communication in the English language, thus enabling our students to act autonomously, with a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, in their 21st century world, while also gaining the social and civic competences to live together in increasingly heterogeneous groups. Their competences will be demonstrated through superior achievements in the priority academic content areas of English, mathematics, science, and additional languages, as well as in the overarching competence of learning to learn, which will be vitally assisted by the students’ digital competence. Such highly competent individuals should go on to succeed in colleges and careers of their own choosing, and eventually finding good work will be a natural outcome of all that our students will have learned to do; and their competence in cultural awareness and expression should durably support their ability to live together successfully in heterogeneous groups while also supporting their most crucial final outcome, their having learned to be One World learners, with the attributes in the ideal profile that follows."

"One World Learners (OWLs) will become:
·            Disciplined enquirers who have begun mastering the critical thinking and problem-solving skills and the knowledge necessary to continue to learn within a discipline through enquiry and research. One World students will actively enjoy learning, and their love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
·          Balanced learners who understand the importance of intellectual, emotional, and physical balance to achieve a good life for themselves and others. In addition, they will study a broad, balanced curriculum, and will analyze, synthesize, and evaluate various ideas derived from the disciplines in a fair, balanced way.
·           Caring communicators who convey empathy, compassion, and respect for the needs and feelings of others. One World students will commit themselves to service, and will be able to clearly communicate, orally, in writing, and through modern media, their principled determination to make an ethical contribution to the lives of other people and to the planet as a whole.
·            Open-minded initiators who understand their own cultures and histories and are open to those of others. One World students will actively seek out other points of view and, like risk-taking entrepreneurs, will watch for and seize new opportunities, ideas, and strategies for improvement.
·            Reflective innovators who develop “right-brain” traits such as curiosity, imagination, and creativity to go with their “left-brain” skills in communication and traditional disciplinary learning. In addition, our students will learn to become reflective on their experience, understanding their own strengths and limitations as they strive towards wisdom.
·            Knowledgeable, collaborating leaders who explore great issues, ideas, and concepts, thereby acquiring in-depth knowledge across a broad range of disciplines. They will often acquire necessary information through digital, collaborative enquiry, thereby gaining the computing, ICT, and social skills to responsibly work in teams with networks of people who may come from vastly different cultures and also to use reasoning and persuasion to lead and to learn. 
·            Flexible adapters who are ready to change with a changing economy and a changing world. Because they will have become life-long learners, One World graduates will have the self-reliant career skills, productivity, and sense of accountability to deal with our planet’s increasingly complex problems in the 21st century."

       Tomorrow I will conclude this series, based on Secretary Duncan's stimulating speech to the Inter-American Development Bank, with a description of France's interesting ongoing efforts to assure the acquisition of similar competences in its national assessment system.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Efforts to Define 21st Century Competences

This is my third post discussing the fine speech Secretary Duncan recently made to the Inter-American Development Bank. Among other stimulating portions in the speech, one finds this, just in front of his coda complimenting the bank's work in Haiti: "In fact, these [traits, discussed in my post of yesterday] are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

I agree, and much thoughtful work has gone into defining the competences needed by the students who are leaving our schools today. I summarized them in the notes to a document I have written to support the charter of One World Secondary School, "Learning for the 21st Century":

"International efforts to define the educational needs of the 21st century have been proceeding for nearly two decades now. As early as 1996, the UNESCO International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by former European Commission President Jacques Delors, proposed in Learning: The Treasure Within that, building on the four pillars that are the foundations of education – learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together,  and learning to be – all societies should aim to move towards a necessary Utopia in which none of the talents hidden like buried treasure in every person be left untapped. The next year, the OECD’s education ministers recombined the knowledge, skills, and values implicit in the Delors pillars into the concept of competencies, and the OECD has done much work to define and select the competencies “for a successful life and a well-functioning society”, and has used them in designing its PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment) assessments. It has concluded that three categories of competencies are key in the 21st century: acting autonomously, using tools interactively, and interacting in socially heterogeneous groups. The APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) economies have developed a 21st century competency framework encompassing APEC’s priority academic content areas: English and other languages, mathematics, science, information and communication technologies, and technical education. Finally, the European Union has legislatively defined eight key competences for lifelong learning: communication in the mother tongue, communication in foreign languages, mathematical competence and competences in science and technology, digital competence, learning to learn, social and civic competences, a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, and cultural awareness and expression."

Tomorrow I will reveal how these have been synthesized in the profile of the One World learners our school hopes to produce. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Comprehensive High Schools Disserve Everyone Who Has a Choice

Continuing from where I left off in yesterday's post, Secretary Duncan here distinguishes between two general classes of skills, those required for employment and more general ones required of all citizens. Fair enough; but it does not therefore follow that all teenagers in a community need be housed on the same campus in order for these general skills to be developed in all our young people, just as they needn't all fit into a single high school to ensure that they learn English, mathematics, and other subjects. His belief calls for some common curricula (such as civics) to be studied by all students; but they do not all need to be gathered together on a single campus in order to learn those curricula. So he's right, what he is objecting to is a false choice; but it's a choice that none of us calling for modernized career and technical education schools are asking him, or anyone else, to make.

In the dual systems of Switzerland and European countries due north of it, students spend part of their time, after they have completed their compulsory general educations, in vocational schools where they further their basic skills in language arts, mathematics, and other subjects; but these general education subjects are taught with a special emphasis upon the application of their contents to the kinds of careers the students are hoping to pursue. Therefore a student who hopes to be a chef, for example, might study those aspects of chemistry and biology, for example, that might explain why certain flavour combinations are popular and that would keep the student's future customers safe and free of food-borne illnesses. Less relevant aspects of the sciences would be deemphasized or not taught. By contrast, in our comprehensive high schools of today, those aspects less relevant to these students are generally taught; they just are not learned by students whose brains have learned to tune out information that is of no relevance to them.

The secretary's third paragraph, in my excerpt, begins in a familiar vein: "Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams." Yes, but precisely which kind of employer is likely to have overrepresented access to the U.S. secretary of education, and which kind is he particularly likely to be listening to most attentively? I submit this is likely to be people like Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, who won the prime time attention of Brian Williams earlier this week; or the well connected CEOs of the Business Roundtable, who can arrange for private meetings with American presidents. These high status executives, who occasionally even win the presidential nominations of the Republican Party, are not representative of the average American "employers" Secretary Duncan speaks of in very general terms. And although these employers may wish for their employees to have the abilities the secretary mentions, where is the evidence that they are willing to pay for them in bulk? They typically want such abilities for the lowest possible price, or are under pressure from their boards to seek such labour purchases; and they are quite prepared to outsource outside of our country if they cannot find what they want here; so while we need to address such sentiments, they cannot be the only views driving our vision of the panoply of vocational education choices our young people need.  Also, what about our young citizens who may not be able to develop such a spectrum of abilities? What does he suggest we do with our most disadvantaged young people, like those with special needs who are currently emerging from our high schools in an extremely uncompetitive position, with limited likelihood of ever being able to function as independent adults and to earn the self esteem that independence brings?

With other aspects of education and society changing so rapidly, this is not the time to be conservative in our view of secondary school structures.

Tomorrow I will conclude by discussing the last paragraph of my excerpt from Secretary Duncan's speech, and will convey some of those interesting work that has been done on identifying the competences required for thriving in the 21st century along with a very interesting initiative of France to assess their acquisition.   

Friday, December 7, 2012

Opening Up a Discussion of Secretary Duncan's Remarks to the Inter-American Development Bank

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has recently delivered an interesting speech to the Inter-American Development Bank that deserves more discussion than it has generated. At the end of the speech, he invites the leaders present to discuss his presentation, and although I wasn't invited, I'm going to join in anyway.

For me the most interesting part of the speech is probably the section just before he begins closing with (well deserved) complimentary remarks on the rebuilding of Haiti's educational system. What follows is a much longer quotation than I usually excerpt, but the matter is vital:

"I talk a lot about the economic value and the personal freedom that a world-class education provides. But I absolutely reject the distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employability skills, and preparing students to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills.

"I believe that is a false choice. In fact, I belief there is a happy convergence between the career skills needed to succeed in a knowledge-based economy and the citizenship skills and global competencies needed to participate in modern democracy and civil society.

"Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams. But many of those same traits—knowing how to ask good questions, working collaboratively with others to solve problems, and appreciating diversity—are also clearly invaluable for participation in civil society.

"In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

This is thoughtful, praiseworthy prose, and although I think  the secretary continues to draw the wrong conclusion from his premises, they (and much else in the speech) certainly deserve a response from those of us who believe that current policy is requiring too many students to stay in school for too long, and is hurting those it intends to help. I will explain my reasoning beginning tomorrow.